It's no secret that Sunday's derby is the most important game of the season for Real Madrid and Barcelona. This is a must-win for both. As Barcelona enters the game surrounded by a lot of questions (they have lost three of their last seven Liga games), the same could be said about Real Madrid. As effective as they have been lately, it just feels like this team struggles whenever they face a tough game and one can only wonder if they are ready for the biggest game of the season.
Looking back at some of the season's toughest games might give us an idea of what can we expect in terms of attitude or even coaching and find out if there have been any improvements in such games or not.
Real Madrid vs Atlético de Madrid: 0-1 L (La Liga, September 28, 2013)
The first big game of La Liga took place in September 2013, against city-rival Atlético de Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu. Atleti entered the game undefeated and with a two-point lead over Real Madrid. The result? A 0-1 win for the visitors and the first major disappointment of the season.
That game is remembered for being one of the worst performances by Los Blancos so far. Ángel Di María had a horrible night, including a very dumb play where he turned the ball over to Diego Costa, setting up Atlético's winning goal.
Carlo Ancelotti was clearly out coached by Diego Simeone that night. Players like Luka Modric didn't even start and Sami Khedira had to play as a creative midfielder at times. Carletto looked too conservative and predictable. Simply put, the best team won that night.
That's the only game at the Bernabéu this year where Madrid failed to score. That loss left Madrid trailing both Atlético and Barcelona by five points. Needless to say, a lot of people started questioning Ancelotti and, to be honest, with good reason.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid: 2-1 L (La Liga, October 26, 2013)
Just a month later, Real Madrid visited Barcelona for the first Clásico of the season. There was a lot of confidence among Madrid's fans entering the game, since Barcelona had not been that juggernaut it used to be.
While the match against Atlético was remembered as a poor overall performance, this one is remembered for Ancelotti's dumb experiment using Sergio Ramos as a defensive midfielder.
That experiment killed Real Madrid. When Ancelotti tried to fix it by replacing Ramos with Illarra, it was already too late. The team improved after that to the surprise of no one, including a shot by Benzema that hit the crossbar.
While the ref ignored a clear penalty by Adriano with the score still 1-0, both goals by Barcelona were the product of poor defence by Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane.
Overall, most people felt that the Merengues made it too easy for Barcelona, starting with Ancelotti's idiotic experiment and his fear of Messi and the Camp Nou (or whatever it was).
Osasuna vs Real Madrid: 2-2 D (La Liga, December 14, 2013)
The game was a mess during the first 40 minutes. Real Madrid weren't playing bad, but besides Osasuna taking a 2-0 lead, Ramos was also shown the red card. It was one of those miserable nights for the white defence. Fortunately, Isco scored right before halftime to keep his team alive.
In the second half, Osasuna had the best chances to extend their lead. Diego López and the rest of the team resisted long enough until things turned to a ten-on-ten match, after Silva was shown the red card. After that, Real Madrid was able to get the tie on a header by Pepe.
Not the best result, but it was a solid performance considering Real Madrid had to overcome a 2-0 deficit and the loss of Sergio Ramos. This team showed resiliency when they needed it the most in a very hostile environment. Unfortunately, the result put them five points behind the top two.
Valencia vs Real Madrid: 2-3 W (La Liga, December 22, 2013)
Just a week after a "poor" result at El Sadar, los Merengues now had to visit Mestalla to face Valencia.
It was mandatory for Real Madrid win here since a loss would've put them eight points behind their eternal rivals. At the time and with the way Valencia were playing, an easy win was expected but things turned out to be quite different. (I'm sure Barcelona thought the same thing a few weeks ago).
Defensively, Real Madrid was poor once again on both goals. Jesé became the hero of the day past the 80th minute and not only won this game for his squad, but kept them alive in the tournament.
Athletic vs Real Madrid: 1-1 D (La Liga, February 2, 2014)
Real Madrid had a golden opportunity to overtake Barcelona and remain within one-point of Atlético, now in first place. Problem is, they had a very tough match in front of them against Athletic, at San Mamés no less. Talk about a challenge.
It was a hard fought game from the start, with the visitors looking a bit better than the home team. Jesé scored at the 65th minute and with a 1-0 lead things were definitely looking good for Madrid. Sadly, less than 10 minutes later and on Athletic's first shot on goal of the entire game.
Things only got worse, as Cristiano Ronaldo saw the red card after a childish confrontation with Gurpegui. The ref definitely overreacted with the red card but it was an immature play by the Commander anyway.
Decent result in a tough stadium but it was a wasted chance to take a two-point advantage over Barcelona anyway.
Real Madrid vs Atlético de Madrid: 3-0 W (Copa del Rey Semifinals, February 5, 2014)
After losing two straight games against Atlético, it was time to return things to normal.
Fortunately, Real Madrid had an unexpected ally: luck. Real Madrid scored their first goal on a deflected shot. That goal seemed to crush Atlético's confidence for some reason. After Jesé (*sigh*) made it 2-0, Real Madrid had luck on their side once again and had a three-goal lead after yet another deflected shot.
It would be foolish to say Real won thanks to some unbelievable good luck. The truth is they outplayed their city-rivals and earned the 3-0 win. That is, to this day, one of the best performances by Madrid of the season.
The second leg of the semifinals was an absolute embarrassment by Simeone and his men. They jumped on the pitch with just one objective: to start a fight. The biggest threat on Atlético's side was a coward Pateti fan that threw a lighter at Ronaldo, hitting him in the head. We know the rest. 5-0 and on to the final.
Atlético de Madrid vs Real Madrid: 2-2 D (La Liga, March 2, 2014)
Nearly a month later, it was time for another derby. Atlético was now at home and after the humiliation suffered at the hands of Madrid, they were looking for some revenge.
The game started really well for los Merengues with an early goal by Benzema. The rest of the first half was entirely different. Atlético didn't stop biting and eventually found their reward, getting a 2-1 lead, after mistakes by Coentrao/Ramos on the first goal and then by López on the second goal. Contrary to what happened on the second leg of the CdR semifinals, now Madrid was falling for Atleti's provocations.
Once again, El Cholo was out coaching Carletto, who started the game with a conservative attitude, starting Coentrao and Arbeloa instead of Marcelo and Carvajal.
Simeone's team had the control of the game even in the second half but the home team started to get a bit tired. Ancelotti answered with the right adjustments, giving Carvajal and Marcelo a chance to save the game. It was precisely Dani who assisted Ronaldo on the 2-2, a goal that was like a big slap on the face of every fan in attendance.
First of all, of course there were other tough games besides these. Villarreal, Rayo Vallecano come to mind. However, it feels like these offered the right set of circumstances to make it a big test for Ancelotti and his men.
When it was time to face a top squad like Barcelona, Carlo Ancelotti sort of panicked and started to experiment when there was no reason to do so. Using Ramos as a midfielder was dumb from the start and we all knew it. Something similar happened against the first derby against Atlético at the the Bernabéu. The Italian was not just out coached by Simeone, he didn't make the right substitutions and paid for it. Revisiting the match at the Calderón, it was the same thing again.
It looks like Carletto enters those games against top teams with a certain fear or at least major worries that his team won't be able to overcome a deficit. That clearly hasn't worked so far.
Real Madrid just haven't been able to perform well for the entire 90 minutes in any of the big games. Whether it was Ramos seeing unnecessary red cards or Ronaldo falling to some provocations or something basic like the lose of focus by some defenders, it's true that this team is still unreliable in big games. We just analyzed seven games here and in all of those, the only truly impressive performance was the 3-0 win against Atlético in Copa del Rey.
Now, it's not all negative. Even when the team had a minimal margin of error, the team responded really well, and we're talking about more than a two-month streak (late Decemeber, January, February) when they took advantage of any losses or draws by Barcelona and Atlético. That is truly remarkable.
This team has also proved to be very resilient, even when playing in complicated stadiums like El Sadar or the Calderón. They will fight until the end to get a positive result. At home, it's almost guaranteed that Los Blancos will score so home-field advantage will be huge against Barcelona.
FCB has struggled against similar teams. They lost against Valencia (at home) and Athletic, while tying with Osasuna and Atlético. We can't forget their pathetic games against Real Sociedad and Valladolid. See, they have a lot of questions of their own, which is definitely a positive.
After revisiting a bunch of games, it's hard to predict how they will perform in any big game, which isn't precisely encouraging. That involves everyone, starting with the coach. Who knows what's Ancelotti's plan for the game against Barcelona. Being conservative hasn't worked. With a desperate Barcelona in do-or-die mode, it's time to see if Ancelotti has learned his lesson. Same goes to the players. It's time prove they can play an entire game completely focused.
That said, a weaker-than-usual culé squad, the support of the Bernabéu crowd and beasts like Ronaldo and Bale make it hard not to believe that they will win El Clásico and kill Barcelona's hopes of winning La Liga with it.
As fans, it's time to trust Ancelotti and his men to take the next step right before the toughest stretch of the season.
Now, it's time for you to share your thoughts and predictions. Is this team ready for big games like these?